The Real Cruelty of College Admissions

Volume VIII, #9

T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland famously begins “April is the cruellest month,” and nowadays nowhere is that more apt than college admissions. As Inside Higher Education reported, last month Brown University admitted 2,566 applicants and “offered spots on its waiting list” to 2,724. Carnegie Mellon waitlisted a whopping 5,000 applicants, seeking to fill a class of 1,500. Penn was in the same league, admitting 3,731 while waitlisting 3,500. So when Penn Admissions tweeted to its 21,000 followers “Congratulations to the University of Pennsylvania Class of 2022! Welcome to Philadelphia, #Penn22 💙❤,” I retweeted a more appropriate welcome: “Congratulations to the Waitlist for the University of Pennsylvania Class of 2022! Welcome to our Waitlist #WaitlistPenn22 💙❤.”

The more elite the school, the less likely it is that a waitlist is anything other than a powerful branding tool, demonstrating the university’s strong appeal to thousands of expectant families each year. At most, 5% of Penn’s waitlist can expect an offer of admission; in some years it’s below 1%. Whitney Bruce, an admissions consultant in Portland, Maine was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying waitlists were doing little more than “emotionally stringing the student along.” Cristiana Quinn, a consultant in Rhode Island agreed that the practice is “cruel and keeps FAR too many students hanging on with unrealistic hopes of being accepted.”

Cruel though they may be, waitlists-as-marketing-tool are a high-class problem. The vast majority of waitlisted students will choose another, slightly less selective college, and will be just fine. The real cruelty of college admissions is its impact on the wasteland that is much of America’s system of K-12 education.


In the 35 years since the publication of A Nation at Risk, the performance of America’s public schools has ranked in polls as a crisis or slow-burning problem that must be solved. Although most Americans with school-age children are supportive of their teacher and school, few believe the system is doing what it needs to do. Economists tell us public schools aren’t producing graduates with the skills required for a competitive workforce. But the fundamental challenge is that the majority of students attend a “high-poverty school,” and our schools aren’t doing nearly enough to lift students who need the most help.

Such is the origin of the “education wars”: education reform, charter schools, teachers’ union engagement in politics, Betsy DeVos and her many detractors, and despite the rise of Teach for America and other well-meaning groups, a brake on the most important change we could make, which is elevating the status of public school teachers and attracting our most motivated and talented citizens into classrooms on a long-term basis (like in Finland, the deification of which may be the only thing both sides can agree on).

In an important new book, What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith, author and executive producer of Most Likely to Succeed, visited schools in all 50 states in a single year and presents an amalgam of our public schools, “Eisenhower High,” which “prides itself on producing ‘college-ready’ graduates. Students, teachers, local businesses, and especially parents care about college. Every student goes on to a four-year college, with counselors and consultants guiding the way. Parents fight fiercely to give their child every college advantage. They see it as the key to their child’s future and the defining marker of their parenting success.”

College admissions is reified at high-poverty schools, says Dintersmith, by the dozens of posters and banners of colleges hanging on the walls. Getting into college is the goal, so keep your eyes on the prize. This is why respected charter school organizations like KIPP, which focus exclusively on lifting underprivileged kids, have historically measured themselves solely on the college success of their students.

There are two problems with K-12’s obsession with college admissions. The first is that if we’re actually interested in student success, college admissions is a metric that is exceptionally short term. Whether or not students get into college, and which colleges they’re admitted to, is a long way from ascertaining student success, let alone success in life. As Dintersmith notes, “Of young Americans who begin at a four-year college, about half graduate in a reasonable time frame. Of those, about half get a good job.” To this, I’d add that as many as one in five accepted students “melt” away over the summer due to financial, familial, or other issues; life gets in the way. Of course, nearly all melted students are exactly the low socioeconomic children we’re most concerned about. But as these students have already graduated, schools that measure themselves based on college admissions have already declared victory and moved on.

The second problem is that college admissions is the wrong short-term metric. With only 200 selective colleges and universities, that leaves about thousands of effectively open-enrollment four-year institutions, where college admissions is less a measure of college readiness than family wealth and support and/or willingness to take on potentially punishing levels of student loan debt. Neither is a good predictor of success – the latter probably has a negative correlation – let alone a relevant indicator of the high school’s contribution to the student’s life.

Although admission to the right college can and does change thousands of lives for the better each year, there’s no question that college admissions is a highly imperfect metric for the performance of K-12 schools and school districts. If educators and parents are truly interested in “What School Could Be,” schools need better feedback as to what’s really important for student success in the long run; Dintersmith writes that college admissions is the “elephant in the room” blocking high school innovation. As Eliot warned in The Wasteland, “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.”


As colleges and universities amply demonstrate, it’s easier to operate institutions according to metrics that are easy to observe as opposed to metrics that make a difference for students. (Witness the four Rs of higher education: research, rankings, real estate, and rah for sports.) So I won’t hold my breath waiting for a miracle metric. But I do think there’s reason for hope. Last-mile training models like bootcamps, income share programs, and especially employer-pay models like staffing and outsourced apprenticeships that lead directly to good first (often digital) jobs are beginning to scale rapidly and have the potential to provide K-12 education with new and different feedback.

Last-mile training only works if there’s only a mile to go. And so high schools will benefit from learning whether their graduates are anywhere close to qualifying for a good first job, and how to align and optimize curricula and program delivery to ensure that they are. This would be unprecedented direct feedback as to whether students are exiting K-12 with the skills required for work. Progressive states, school districts, and charter school organizations will want to partner with last-mile providers, not only to provide students with faster + cheaper pathways to good first jobs, but also to get valuable data for as to what’s working, and what’s not. At a minimum, such feedback would serve as a productive counterbalance to the current overwhelming emphasis on college admissions.

But for the time being, April remains the cruelest month. Not because a bunch of privileged kids got waitlisted at Penn. But because K-12 educators continue to draw their lessons from college admissions, but could be learning so much more. College admissions has devolved into a sport primarily for the wealthy, like polo. Except polo only hurts horses, not kids.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

1. The Kids Aren’t Alright MarketWatch reports that Millennials age 25-34 with college degrees and student loans have median net worth of -$1,900, a drop of $9,000 in the last three years, by Jillian Berman. The financial experience of today’s young adults is fundamentally different from what their parents went through. Twenty and 30-somethings these days have lower incomes and are less likely to own homes than baby boomers were in the 1980s... What’s more, they’ve accumulated just half the wealth of what their parents had amassed at the same age. In 1989, the median net wealth of all 25 to 34-year-olds, regardless of whether they had student loans was $25,786 in 2016 dollars, compared to $12,000 in 2016 Read more 2. The Unmet Promise of Apprenticeships Hechinger Report on how great it would be if more Americans had access to “earn-and-learn” apprenticeships, but wondering who – other than Cliff from Cheers – is doing anything about it, by Caroline Preston. President Donald Trump has talked about expanding apprenticeships and set up a Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion last fall. But new money has been slow to go out the door. The task force, which includes some relative novices to the topic, including the actor who played Cliff on “Cheers,” has yet to issue any recommendations. Read more 3. A Uniquely American Model for Apprenticeships TechCrunch article on Techtonic Group, demonstrating the promise of outsourced apprenticeships, by Jonathan Shieber. The company’s program pitches itself not just as a development shop, but as a recruitment and training company connecting its clients with skilled entry-level talent. The firm’s clients actually can hire Techtonic Group apprentices at no additional cost after 1,000 hours of work together. “Techtonic Group’s outsourced apprenticeship model radically reduces hiring friction for employers and provides a pathway to great first digital jobs for Americans of all backgrounds.” Read more